BUDDHIST monk Punnyo Bhikku sets down his cup of tea, bows his shaven head and presses his palms together to “wai”.

The “wai” is a traditional Thai greeting. Punnyo’s status forbids him to touch women, so it acts as a substitute for shaking hands.

That does not stop him offering me a cup of tea and before I have the chance to smile and “wai” back, the kettle is on.

Punnyo, 46, who has spent the past four years living in a mountain-top monastery in Thailand, is in Ampleforth for his parents’ golden wedding celebrations.

He is adjusting to the cold, he tells me, but is wrapped up warm beneath his brown robes, the traditional attire for the Forest Sangha, to which he belongs.

Aside from reuniting with his mother’s cooking, enjoying “proper” cups of tea and taking long walks with his parents, being in Ampleforth has been a chance to catch up with his family, friends, and the life he left behind when he ordained.

Raised a catholic, Punnyo – originally named Andrew – wanted to be an engineer “My parents got very upset when I told them I wanted to ordain and become a Buddhist monk,” he says, settling into a comfy armchair in his parents’ living room and sipping his tea.

“It was a difficult thing to explain why I wanted to become a monk of a foreign religion because people in our culture are nervous and frightened about it. Explaining can look like you have been brainwashed.

“I decided the best thing to do was to come back to Ampleforth and not talk about Buddhism and to show my parents I’m fine.”

His interest in Buddhism was sparked aged 14 when a monk at Ampleforth College explained the basic teachings, called the Four Noble Truths.

He learned to meditate then swapped his mathematics course at Bristol University for religious studies. Later, he worked as a nursing assistant and then decided to join the Sangha.

His parents Rhoda and Peter Walker – a former policeman who wrote the books which inspired the Heartbeat TV series – eventually gave him their blessing and he travelled to the Amaravati monastery in Hertfordshire, where he became a postulant – a kind of monk in training – to prepare for monastic life He wore white, rather than the traditional brown, and took eight precepts, which included abstaining from eating after midday, being celibate and relinquishing money.

“I think it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” he says. “When you are living in a monastery the first year or two are the most difficult, adjusting to the different lifestyle, celibacy, not using money, meditating, only eating in the morning, not listening to music, not having girlfriends.

“We were still building the monastery so there was a lot of building work, a lot of cooking work. As monks you don’t go and buy food because you have no money. You rely on donations to make up your food.”

Punnyo ordained two years later, but disrobed in 1992, to further his studies. In 1996, he returned to the Sangha, but this time he ordained in Thailand.

“Thailand was changing very fast and I thought it was best to go there before it changed more,” he says.

“In some ways it’s a lot easier to be a Buddhist monk in an Asian culture; it makes more sense. It’s more integrated in the culture. In Thailand people are very friendly, very welcoming and they are known for their hospitality.”

He lived in a kuti – a hut – in the forest with no electricity or mosquito screen and slept on a rice mat.

Typically, he would rise at 3am, meet the other monks at 3.30am to chant and mediate, then at 6am, he would walk on alms round – an early morning tradition of monks walking along the streets with bowls so villagers can donate food – before the daily meal at 8am. He could meditate until 3pm, sweep away leaves that might hide poisonous snakes and insects, then at 5pm, meet the monks to drink tea before meditation and chanting at 7pm, or maybe visit the abbot to talk and massage his feet.

During his second spell in Thailand, Punnyo lived in a mountain-top monastery in Ubon, a province in the north east of Thailand; about 5km from the island of Koh Samet.

Treasured memories include trekking into the jungle to live on a bamboo platform, walking on alms round and visiting the temple of the Sangha’s original teacher, Ajahn Chah. He enjoys the Thai festivals too.

“I’m a bit of a party animal in some ways,” he says.

There are disadvantages, such as flooding (the monastery has been knee-deep in water) and eating sticky rice, which is hard to digest.

Would he favour being a monk in Thailand?

“I think it’s 50/50,” he says. “There’s the advantage of being in the forest so you have more time to meditate, but when you do it for several years you do start to miss being in your own culture, where you can have long conversations and understand cultural assumptions.

“In Thailand one of the big values is having fun together. They hold it up very high the way we hold up work. They work hard but also know how to have fun.”

He will spend the next few years at the Harnham Buddhist Monastery in Harnham, Northumberland, before returning to Thailand.

Punnyo’s mother, who still calls him Andrew, says it was hard to adjust to his new lifestyle.

“I used to get up early to cook for his one meal a day when he was at home but now I save him leftovers from our evening meal to heat up in the morning,” she says.

“I think my daughters find it quite difficult that they can’t embrace their brother, but they understand he’s become a monk and that’s one of his rules.”

Does she feel guilty eating when Punnyo cannot? “Maybe at first but we’re used to it now,” she says. “He might go and meditate while we eat.”

Punnyo’s friends are accepting of his life as a monk too, and he feels comfortable walking around Ampleforth in his robes. After all, monks have been in Ampleforth for 200 years.

“I hope I’m going to stay as a monk long term but you never can tell; quite a lot of people do disrobe,” he says. “I’m happy enough. I’m not completely enlightened yet, but I’m happy enough.”

For more information about the Forest Sangha, visit forestsangha.org